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The Big Why

by Michael Winter

Hardcover, 376 pages, St Martins Pr, List Price: $24.95 |


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Michael Winter

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Book Summary

A powerful historical novel chronicles a year in the life of celebrated American artist Rockwell Kent who, in 1914, decides to leave urban New York for the rugged wilds of Brigus, Newfoundland, but as the Great War escalates, he becomes a polarizing object of suspicion in the tiny, impoverished community. 25,000 first printing.

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Excerpt: The Big Why


A novel


Copyright © 2004 Michael Winter
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1-59691-025-9

Chapter One


I have been loved. I can say this. But back then, before it all went wrong, I did not know enough to consider the question. I had married a woman with one facial gesture. Kathleen Whiting. A kind smile. When we made love, that smile. I knew I was wrapped up with goodness - if I kept close to this woman a good life would accrue. But there is something about goodness - I associate it with acquiescence, and I'm repulsed by compromise. I wanted to see Kathleen serious. If I caught her rinsing out the coffee cups, her face concentrated and her set mouth. I loved her then. What are you thinking about. About the children. About you. If you are faithful. Her firmness a blend of grace and warding off heartbreak.

Kathleen had said, as a resolution to our leaving New York, I want to make my life less complicated. And my friend Gerald Thayer had leapt at her. Kathleen, he'd said. If your life got any less complicated, the heart would stop right in your chest.

Gerald was the one who'd told us to leave the city. He was a writer and a son of the painter Abbott Thayer. Kathleen was his cousin. I told Gerald how I was angry about the New York painters and my reputation. I was mad at what the buildings were made of and the heat in the buildings. I felt anger was blotting out my love, and I wished to instigate a challenge to this anger. Youre tempted, Gerald said, by too many women, and youre in fights with men you used to respect.

He was alluding to a rift with his father. We were having a show and I had refused to include any art by someone already exhibited by the Academy. Abbott Thayer protested this: it's a labour union method. I called Abbott a crass sentimentalist. I guess the pettiness I felt made New York a little poisoned. I hate, I said, how small I've made the city feel. And I do not like to be exposed.

Gerald Thayer, on our way home: It's not the movement, I hope. He said, Everything is movement these days, and I'd hate for you to be persuaded by it.

Gerald thought about his own movement.

Did you know I'm originally from Buffalo, did you know that?


I'm proud to be from Buffalo.

Me: Well. It's a finely situated city.

Oh go fuck yourself. In the morning I watched the grocer at the corner pluck the wooden pennants that held the prices of the various cheeses. He plucked them like flags of nations. As if cheeses were nationalities and they were shifting. I saw him lift out the flags and rearrange them. All is movement, Gerald had said. It's movement for the sake of making something new.


We were folding my shirts. Kathleen was pairing up socks. How many socks did I need. What kind of weather will you endure. Wool, she said, is better than cotton. It will keep you warm even when it's wet.

I loved Kathleen's posture, the curve of her instep as she forced her fingers to judge the fabric of socks in the light of our bedroom window. She said, It is a terrible thing not to know how to love.

Me: Yes, even now I wonder if I am truly loving.

Kathleen: What is the impulse that drives love.

Me: Is it a good thing.

Kathleen: This is what I believe: when you make love, you are funnelling the world through the beloved.

You make love to the world through the one body. And making art is the same.

But what if you wind up on the wrong side of the art that lasts?

Me: I'm convinced our side will win.

You have become monogamous to that idea.

Yes, Kathleen, but it has left me wondering, now, if I've led a true life.

This reflection is steeped with opinion. It is important to note that during the time Kathleen and I packed my clothes for a life in Newfoundland, I had not yet come to this opinion.


I was thirty when I finally buckled up my pigskin suitcase, selected a box of paints. I entrusted my wife, in the months to come, with shipping off my tools and our worldly goods. In the spring, Kathleen would follow with our three children. This was our second attempt at a life in Newfoundland. Our first try, five years earlier, had ended before Kathleen set foot there. This time I promised her things would be right. Turning thirty had made me panic, but panic is not something I worry about. Panic incites me to concentrate. It was the age my father was when he died, so I was my father. My father had died away from home. The idea of being foreign appealed to me - I had lived most of my life in New York, and suddenly, with thirty rearing itself, the man-made surfaces bored me. But all sudden things come from a deep study of conversion - they are sudden only on the surface.

That Christmas, Gerald Thayer had taken me to seven parties. We had drunk a lot and were vulnerable to awe. But the things we saw were all glitter and no substance. A store was shut and a sign said,


As though they hadn't decided what percentage to mark off. Then I saw: the percentage was there, but it had faded. It had been marked in red, the most fugitive of colours. The store, Gerald said, was closed. It's been closed a long time. This shocked me, this realization that what could have been a fresh thought (closing) had been an old act (closed long ago). I want, I said to Gerald, to avoid that predicament. I want a thickness to pour into me, like honey or cement.

You want, Gerald said, to slough off the baubles.

He said you can get that only if you move to a small place, to the periphery, to a community that is one organism and does not change. That loves itself.

So that is why we moved.

And Newfoundland? In my early twenties I had gone to a lecture given by Captain Bob Bartlett. Bartlett was a ship's captain who would steer Robert Peary to the north pole, and I had been seeing a woman then, Jenny Starling, whose father, George Crocker, knew both Peary and Bartlett. Jenny's father was a sponsor for these expeditions, and he was hoping for a coastline to be named Crocker Land. In those days we were all interested in the Arctic. It was a novelty, going to empty, dangerous places. We loved hearing about men starving or freezing to death for the sake of a technical achievement.

Bartlett said these things. He described a fire on board the Roosevelt. Whale meat from Turnavik went rancid and seeped into the Roosevelt's timbers all along the main deck, and a pipe ignited it. He spoke about the death of young Marvin. How they backtracked for his body and had to chop it out of the frozen sea. He mentioned the trouble with women, how he never married - for what woman could live with a man who spent years trapped in polar drift ice? I was holding Jenny Starling's shoulder when he said this. The exuberance of Bob Bartlett, the generosity of his laughter coupled with my own contempt for New York, made me want to go to his country. His country was Newfoundland.

Bartlett had just returned from the pole to New York with Peary and Matthew Henson. I saw them from Gerald Thayer's apartment on the Upper West Side. I was married to Kathleen now, a new father and a disenchanted painter - all in five years. The city opened its windows, and women hiked up their knees onto sills to look down upon the flurry of white tickertape. There they were: an early motorcade of smiling, victorious, saluting men, Jenny Starling's father in amongst them. Gerald's wife, Alma, leaned out with a paper sack. She tore the side of it and let loose a flurry of narcissus petals. Some landed on my hand. It was like a wedding, or the spreading of ashes after a cremation. One or the other, it had that much meaning to her. There were cocktail benefits for the Peary Polar Club. Gerald and I went to one, a cheaper one that just had Bob Bartlett. A room of green leather and billiard tables. George Crocker was there but refused to speak to me - he did not like how I'd treated his daughter. But this is where I first spoke to Bob Bartlett. He was not tall but a well-packed two hundred pounds, with a long face, a well-shaved face. A little stiff in the face, but jocular. I was taken by him, his sheer joy and good-naturedness. Bob Bartlett was heading back home to Newfoundland. He had a high voice, like some boxers have after theyve been punched in the throat. I'm missing it, Bartlett said. He missed it more than any man I'd ever seen miss home. It made me think he must come from a wonderful place. As if returning to childhood. Perhaps missing anything is always childish. I had no sense of home.

I'm signing up, he said, the young sons of rich Americans. For a trip into the Arctic Circle. You have a son?

Yes, I said, but he's only a baby.

Oh we'll take him, he said.

I'm not rich.

When theyre that young they come free. We've got a hundred thousand rounds of ammunition, rifles galore - he pushed my shoulder - we've got fishing rods and reels, all the gear.

You think there'll be anything left alive when you come back.

Possibly. I hope it's us.

What if, I said, I came aboard.

Your wife won't like it. But I can tell right off, he said. You'd love it.

Bartlett had a manly, physical presence that was coupled with a daintiness. He was physical and yet not sexual. He did not like to hold a wine glass - he kept setting it down. He was very well dressed, but it made his face red. He looked like he wanted to be in shirt sleeves. He wanted to throw open the windows and turn off the radiators. Bob Bartlett had a furnace in him. In his neck and belly.

But he did not believe me. He was humouring me. That I would come.

During the intervening years I met Bob Bartlett several times. He was often in New York and stayed in the Murray Hill Hotel, near the Hudson River. We would meet at his Explorers Club, a club I liked very much, for it felt incubated, or padded, as if sound diminished when you entered those rooms. Bartlett was looking for fresh expeditions, more young men, but the pledges were harder to come by. He knew I was connected to money, and that was part of what he tolerated in meeting me. The poles, he said, had been discovered, and no one wants to send their money out to the regions, not even George Crocker. There was talk, Bartlett said, of a European war. He was looking a little desperate. I too felt desperate. How to make a name when it seemed we had come to the end of things. Abstraction was the avant-garde, and I loathed it. An abstract painting is like a cat that ignores you and says, smugly, I am the reason for living. Art, I told Bartlett, should encourage life. Bob Bartlett liked my spunk and he aggravated my drive to come. I've got a house for you, he said, in Brigus. Neat as a pin.

I almost ended up, I said, in the town of Burin.

He looked interested.

Your prime minister, Morris, told me about Burin. But a family matter caused me to withdraw.

I did not tell him about the troubles I'd had with Jenny Starling.

So why not Brigus?

I talked Kathleen into it. I was twenty-nine, tossing the house keys to her, and she caught them nonchalantly. She had these beautiful big hands and she could catch things.

I'll try anything twice, she said, if it makes you happy.

What did I feel about that. I felt I could be myself. Here was a woman who did not want to curb me. For years I ran on that fuel. Having one's will done, my wife's will bent to my industry. But Kathleen's response was not as altruistic as it seemed. The thought of leaving New York appealed to her. Kathleen was a small-town girl inside. The big city made her shoulders stiff - she grew up in a rural setting in Massachusetts, where she had access to wildflowers and the seasons of insects. She was formed more of nature than of plumbing and electricity. And why couldnt she say that. Okay, so she couldnt say it - it should have been enough that I could sense it. The reason she wanted to leave New York was to avoid meeting women I'd slept with. Having to hear, Yes, I had an affair with her. I'm a man who likes things spoken. At least when those things are in my favour. The truth is, I played against this reluctance in Kathleen to say things. And in this case of moving, I wanted her to blurt her feelings. Bringing our family to a small island country off the coast of Canada, did that make her nervous.


I was working as a draftsman for the architectural firm Ewing and Chappell. In order to leave my job I had to raise some capital. I made a deal with my agent, Charles Daniel, for a monthly stipend in exchange for everything I would write or paint for the rest of my life. Everything: drawings, sketches, paintings, books, travel pieces, ceramics, woodblock prints, colophon design, illustrations. I said two hundred and fifty a month, Charles. What do you say. He was kneeling at a bookcase, his shoes off. His socks did not match. He chose not to wear matching socks - he was quietly defiant in the face of uniformity. He studied the spines of his books, almost solemn, but he was looking for something. He said sixty-five, to the books. Charles Daniel could read the spines of books without twisting his head to the side. I realized he was bargaining. Sixty-five dollars. He said it very quickly, as if he really had totted up my future work and thought it worth sixty-five a month. He was sucking on an apricot. He had the whole apricot in the side of his mouth. I sank on my arches. The sixty-five made me realize he was being generous. It had not occurred to me that I wasnt worth at least two hundred and fifty a month. I understood that my worth was outside of myself. There was the bowl of apricots on his desk. I thought, That's two dollars and fifteen cents a day. I divided that among myself and Kathleen and three children. Okay, I said. Do I need to sign something. Yes, he said.

Charles Daniel knew signed things cemented friendships.

I asked my mother. I visited her with the children. The children liked visiting because my mother had a greenhouse with a sunroom, and in the sunroom was a glass box with a very heavy black-and-yellow snake. Her inheritance had come through, so she said yes. She could send us fifty a month.

Gerald Thayer said, I want to give you fifty dollars. A present.

Me: Forget it.

Gerald: No it's hard to forget.

Me: It'd be a nuisance.

Gerald: You could get something with it. Blow it on something. Something cooked.

Me: I'd spend it. Then I'd spend it ten times over. I'd be in the hole five hundred.

Just spend it once.

Me: I'd do something lavish. Then say, That's Gerald's fifty gone. Then another thing will come up. Say we need a stove. Say I pass a foundry in St John's and there's a brand new shit-kicking stove. Well that's a permanent gift from Gerald sitting in our kitchen. Say the stove is a hundred. I'll think, It's half-price. If we put Gerald's fifty to it. Then there'll be I dont know.

Gerald: I'll get you a stove. Lug a stove to Newfoundland.

Me: Get me a drink. A hundred drinks.

I saw my friend Rufus Weeks. He was a socialist, an active one. He made his living as a vice-president of the New York Life Insurance Company, but he was one of those bankers who think profits increase during times of peace. He was peeling an orange. Let's walk, he said. Rufus was a man who liked to see things as he talked. He ate oranges because, as a child, he'd had an older sister who was ill. The doctor had prescribed fresh fruit. Oranges were imported and expensive, and he was not allowed one. Now he ate them with a vengeance, with bitterness. He was that kind of socialist. Rufus said he believed in character. In upholding morals. But only in public.

Manners, he said, are most important in a politician.

He was peeling the orange in one long spiral. What you expose should always be consistent and proper. Respectful to the times. But privately, character could and should be damned. Have you ever read Mansfield Park?

A long time ago, I said. In school.

We have buried Fanny Price and Edmund Bertram. The modern world, he said, is Henry and Mary Crawford. I want to be a devil, Rufus said. We all do. I want everything, but to be a public man means one must do everything in private.

I did not talk to Rufus about Kathleen. Marriage for Rufus was a domestic arrangement. He divorced the emotional life from his political one, and so in his presence I did the same. The private I disclosed to Gerald, it was the public I wished to discuss with Rufus Weeks. I wanted to organize men, to have free medicine. With Gerald I would say that Kathleen's character was thoroughly consistent from the public through to the private. It was her consistency that drew me to her. She had no different disposition once the door was closed. I never noticed her change, except for an occasional surprise. I hardly ever caught her in a private moment that embarrassed her.